DORSET'S economy faced a £300 million body blow today with news that up to 4,000 jobs based at Blandford Army Camp or nearby could be lost to the area.

The announcement by Defence Secretary Des Browne came despite a high-profile campaign led by North Dorset MP Bob Walter which saw a 5,000-signature petition handed to ministers to try and save signals training at the Camp.

Mr Browne said yesterday that the Camp-based Defence College of Communication and Information Systems - which includes the Royal School of Signals - is to move.

He said that there were no plans either to close or sell off the camp which will remain a military establishment with the MoD considering the best options' for it, something Mr Walter said could include the Royal Corps of Signals headquarters staying at Blandford. Current training at Blandford will continue until 2011.

The college and five others now face privatisation and relocation as part of the creation of a new armed forces tri-service training centre based at RAF St Athan near Cardiff in South Wales. The overall contract is believed to be worth up to £16 billion - as much as the Welsh Assembly's entire annual budget - to successful bidder, the Metrix Consortium, a joint venture between Land Securities and former government defence agency QinetiQ.

Mr Walter said the contract could create up to 5,500 new civilian jobs in South Wales but at a terrible cost to North Dorset where up to 4,000 vital military jobs at the Camp and across Dorset worth up to £300 million to Dorset's economy could be lost to the area.

He also challenged a comment by Under Secretary of State for Defence Derek Twigg that the changes would only affect about 900 personnel currently based at Blandford' because he said he felt that many more jobs were at risk.

He added: "We are disappointed that the Ministry of Defence has decided to relocate the expertise away from Blandford which will be a major economic shock to the whole of Dorset. We are focused on finding out what the Government and the MoD can do to turn this into an opportunity for the area.

"We need clarification as to the future use of Blandford Camp and whether any of the site will be released for redevelopment and what the timetable for change is. These are key questions that I intend to raise in Parliament."

Councillor Angus Campbell, Dorset County Council leader and the member for the Blandford Camp area, said that if the void created by the departure of signals training could be nullified by other military training or presence it could be of great mutual benefit to Blandford and to Dorset'.

Bruce Voss, the South West Regional Development Agency's Dorset operations head, said: "The loss of jobs will have a devastating impact on the rural economy.

"The skills that will be lost as a result of relocation are vital to the South West and will take a great deal of time to re-establish."